BOOK REVIEW: A Gate at the Stairs
By Lorrie Moore, Knopf, Hardcover, 336 pages, $25.95
Reading Lorrie Moore's latest novel took me home. Like the main character, I grew up in a small town in Wisconsin and went away to college at the university in Madison. From the bleak winters to the student housing by the stadium to the small town Wisconsin accent and phrases, Moore's descriptions are spot-on. For me, simply being transported back to my roots and my alma mater made this book worth the read. Moore's novel has much to offer though, even for those not lucky enough to hail from the Cheese State.
This is the story of Tassie, an undergrad from a small Wisconsin town going to school in the "big" city at the state university. She gets a job as a nanny for a white couple who adopt a biracial child. The couple, who are both busy professionals, the wife the owner of a gourmet restaurant downtown, involves Tassie in the adoption process from the very beginning. She ends up learning far more from this and other extra-curricular activities than from her course work. She also, like most college undergrads, is trying to make sense of the world we live in, post 9/11, with two wars going on overseas. Just as much she is trying to make sense of her relationship with the place and the family that are her roots.
Moore develops Tassie into a complex and very real character and supports her with a host of other well fleshed-out characters. Often Moore does this by sharing with the reader Tassie's inner dialogue. As Tassie tries to respond to a disturbing revelation from the woman who employs her as a nanny, that threatens to derail the adoption, the reader can relate to Tassie's search for a response: "Where were effective, urgent words when the world most required them? I felt I needed to persist. But it was like all bad dreams: the dreamer, even while dreaming, thinks, What is going on here? What am I supposed to do?"
Moore, who is a writing instructor at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, is also a master of the classic writing advice of "show, don't tell." After a hard break-up with a foreign student of mysterious background, Tassie tells us, "Everything I ate seemed to collect in a clayey ball in my bowel, and my pulse would stop in my sleep then start up again in a hurry, discombobulated, waking me up from dreams of blind alleys, naked running, and wrath."
What I most enjoyed about Moore's novel though, were her rich, spot-on descriptions that for me invoked nostalgia: "The January day was blue, sun sparkling off the evergreens, the air clear as a bell; it was state-of-the-art light, as noon in January sometimes could be: not rich but pale and cleansing as lemon wine."
In another example Moore even includes a detail that Tassie, as a newcomer to Madison and thus inexperienced with its cabbies, probably wouldn't have known: "'Hi,' he said, smiling. How old was he? Thirty? What had he studied? French literature? The cabbies in this town seemed all to have law degrees or PhDs or unfinished dissertations on ancient Greek pottery design or the hegemonic hedges of Versailles."
It is no wonder that Moore's descriptions of Madison and elsewhere in Wisconsin are so vibrant and precise; she has lived there, teaching at the university for over two decades. The odd thing is, Moore never actually specifically says that the setting of her novel is Wisconsin, and she insists on calling the liberal university city Troy. I can only assume that in fictionalizing she wanted the flexibility and safety of some anonymity. Having lived there for eight years though, I can assure you she is describing Madison, Wis. to a T, warts and all.
The only area which I am not fully convinced of Moore's skill is in plot. While full of interesting ideas and not at all predictable, the plot of "A Gate at the Stairs" progressed at a markedly slow pace. With scenes of high-minded academic debate as well as late-night, broken-hearted songwriting going on for pages, this is not a book for someone who likes to be kept on the edge of her seat. It is rather a book for someone who wants to be transported to another world -- in this case Wisconsin -- and get wrapped up in the lives of some fascinating characters.